Got news? That other 2012 Supreme Court case

Does anyone out there in GetReligion reader land remember that narrow U.S. Supreme Court decision that cleared the way for arguments to continue about the Obama administration’s health-care law? On one level, that decision was about money and taxes, but buried down in one of the opinions written on the winning side was a highly significant, yet mostly overlooked, quote linked to the religious-liberty battles that dominated the religion-news beat in 2012.

At the time, I wrote a GetReligion post that pointed readers toward that important material buried deep inside the blog world at The Washington Post:

“I think the court’s decision makes clear Obama is still subject to legal challenges and that the Supreme Court is willing to entertain that the HHS regulations violate the rights of religious freedom,” said Hanna Smith, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, a D.C. firm involved in some of the 23 pending lawsuits against the White House. The lawsuits all focus on opposing a mandate announced by the Department of Health and Human Services after the law was passed.

Mark Rienzi, another Becket attorney, said in a phone conference call that the ruling today only spoke to whether Congress had the right to pass the act — not on the details of how it’s implemented. …

The attorneys honed in on two parts of Thursday’s ruling. One, from the majority opinion, said: “Even if the taxing power enables Congress to impose a tax on not obtaining health insurance, any tax must still comply with other requirements in the Constitution.”

The second, from Justice Ruth Ginsberg, (sic) said “A mandate to purchase a particular product would be unconstitutional if, for example, the edict impermissibly abridged the freedom of speech, interfered with the free exercise of religion, or infringed on a liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause.”

The key is the Ginsburg quote, especially since it came from one of the most important voices on the court’s left wing.

In my mind, I coupled that quote with another Supreme Court decision that received some attention. However, to my surprise, this other decision didn’t make it into the list of the year’s Top 10 stories produced by the Godbeat pros voting in the poll posted by the Religion Newswriters Association.

I’m talking about that 9-0 decision in which the court defended the “ministerial exception” that allows churches and religious organizations to take doctrine into account when hiring and firing employees. Yes, the U.S. Justice Department actually argued against religious groups on that issue. Yes, the court then voted 9-0 against the White House on that religious-liberty issue.

Yes, I still think that was one of the most important religion-news stories of the year. I ranked it No. 2 on my RNA ballot.

Bobby has served up scores of interesting links and viewpoints wrapping up Godbeat 2012, but I thought I would show GetReligion readers my whole ballot — in the form of last week’s column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

I started with a blast from a prominent pulpit in Dallas:

‘Twas the Sunday night before the election and the Rev. Robert Jeffress was offering a message that, from his point of view, was both shocking and rather nuanced.

His bottom line: If Barack Obama won a second White House term, this would be another sign that the reign of the Antichrist is near.

Inquiring minds wanted to know: Was the leader of the highly symbolic First Baptist Church of Dallas suggesting the president was truly You Know Anti-who?

“I am not saying that President Obama is the Antichrist, I am not saying that at all,” said Jeffress, who previously made headlines during a national rally of conservative politicos by calling Mormonism a “theological cult.”

“What I am saying is this: the course he is choosing to lead our nation is paving the way for the future reign of the Antichrist.”

That’s some pretty strong rhetoric, until one considers how hot things got on the religion beat in 2012. After all, one Gallup poll found that an amazing 44 percent of Americans surveyed responded “don’t know” when asked to name the president’s faith. The good news was that a mere 11 percent said Obama is a Muslim — down from 18 percent in a Pew Research Center poll in 2010.

Could church-state affairs get any hotter? Amazingly the answer was “yes,” with a White House order requiring most religious institutions to offer health-care plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including “morning-after pills.” The key: The Health and Human Services mandate only recognizes the conscience rights of a nonprofit group if it has the “inculcation of religious values as its purpose,” primarily employs “persons who share its religious tenets” and primarily “serves persons who share its religious tenets.”

America’s Catholic bishops and other traditional religious leaders cried “foul,” claiming that the Obama team was separating mere “freedom of worship” from the First Amendment’s sweeping “free exercise of religion.” In a year packed with church-state fireworks, the members of Religion Newswriters Association selected this religious-liberty clash as the year’s top religion-news story. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the point man for Catholic opposition to the mandate, was selected as the year’s top religion newsmaker – with Obama not included on the ballot.

The story I ranked No. 2 didn’t make the Top 10 list. I was convinced that the 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming a Missouri Synod Lutheran church’s right to hire and fire employees based on doctrine could be crucial in the years — or even months — ahead.

So let’s move on to the rest of my version of the RNA Top 10 list, after the HHS mandate conflict.

For the official RNA.org press release, click here.

* The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that religiously unaffiliated people – the so-called “nones” — is America’s fastest-growing religious group, approaching 20 percent of the population.

* The online trailer of an anti-Islam film, “Innocence of Muslims,” allegedly causes violence in several countries, including a fatal attack on U.S. consulate in Libya.

* GOP White House candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith turns out to be a virtual non-issue for white evangelical voters.

* Monsignor William Lynn of Philadelphia becomes first senior U.S. Catholic official found guilty of hiding priestly child abuse, followed by Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo.

* Vatican officials harshly criticize liberal U.S. nuns, citing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for its history of criticism of church teachings on sexuality and the all-male priesthood.

* Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington affirm same-sex marriage. Minnesota defeats a ban on same-sex marriage, while North Carolina approves one.

* Episcopal Church leaders adopt ritual for blessing same-sex couples.

* A gunman described as a neo-Nazi kills six Sikhs and wounds three others in a suburban Milwaukee temple.

* Southern Baptist Convention unanimously elects its first African-American president, the Rev. Fred Luter of New Orleans.

As Bobby did before me, I urge GetReligion readers to offer their own takes on the order for these 11 events, with the 9-0 decision thrown into the mix.

Give it a shot.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Steve Bauer

    * Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington affirm same-sex marriage. Minnesota defeats a ban on same-sex marriage, while North Carolina approves one.

    When the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod’s “official organ” The Lutheran Witness” printed that Minnesota defeated a ban on same-sex marriage, it got slapped down by one of its pastors in Minnesota who said that what Minnesota voters did was refuse to amend the state’s constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The Lutheran Witness accepted the correction. Readers smarter than me can decide whether this is a distinction without a difference or not.

  • Johannes Oesch

    Dear sir, NYT provides interested readers with this document about the ministerial exception case of Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran church and School:
    http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/01/12/us/12scotus-text.html
    I’d like to note that I am missing – as well in the NYT and also in your posting – any remarks on the merits of due process within canon law or Lutheran ecclesial order.

  • D.A. Howard

    As a Certified Senior Professional in Human Resources, it is called the ministerial exemption, not the ministerial exception. A person or organization is not excepted, they are exempted. Hope that helps. God bless you.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Almost all the articles I have read about the Obamacare mandate that has many religious people very–and legitimately–concerned zero in on how Catholics (especially Roberts and Kennedy) are going to stand in their decisions.
    But the key may very well be, as pointed out here, Ruth Bader Ginsberg who is Jewish. And she should–along with the Jewish and Islamic Communities –be very worried no matter what promises are made by politicians. Under the guise of “medical care” is the government now going to gain the power to make decisions regarding circumcision in the Jewish and Islamic communities??? Could the government outlaw this procedure as some have tried in San Francisco and Germany??? Could the government set age rules and qualifications for the procedure??? Could the government decide who can do a circumcision and where it must be done????
    Quite a long list of possible government First Amendment trashing on this issue could be in the offing if the government wins all its Obamacare cases where religion is involved.
    But how much media coverage has this issued received??? How much will it receive???

  • Mike

    You’ve misspelled Justice Ginsburg’s name.

    I imagine the reason Hosana-Tabor didn’t make RNA’s list was because it was a unanimous decision on a very narrow set of facts. It didn’t really shed much new light on the issue.

  • Mark Anderson

    “The attorneys honed in on two parts of Thursday’s ruling.”
    It is sad that professional writers continue to confuse hone and home. Mark my words, this is another nail in the coffin of good, old-fashioned journalism.
    :))


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